Saturday, March 28, 2020

Semi-Conversions

Give your all to God. I have seen people who are far from God who think that because they have acknowledged the existence of God and have taken a few steps towards him that now they are very near to him. I have seen a person like this who thinks that he or she is now the most enlightened of people.

François Fénelon

The person who has just begun his or her way to God, and then thinks that they have already arrived, is as self-deluded as the person who has just watched the king parade by in his carriage and now thinks he is a member of the king’s court. Such a person abandons some horrible vices, such as drug and alcohol abuse, fornication, compulsive gambling, and such, and then judges themselves as being holy, righteous, and pure, and yet they continue to live a weak, worldly, and dissipated life. Such a person judges themselves, not by the holiness of God, or the obedience of biblical saints, which are our only reliable witnesses, but rather they compare themselves with themselves or with others that they see in the world, and then judge that they have arrived. Because they now think so highly of themselves, they think that they need not come any closer to God and so proceed to ignore him more or less completely.


This state is perhaps even more fatal than being in a state of scandalous debauchery. The debauchery would trouble one’s conscience as well as one’s faith, and the uncomfortable conscience may lead them to repentance. The deception caused by this legalistic acceptance of God’s willingness to forgive the repentant only serves to stifle any healthy remorse, which might actually lead that person to a place of true repentance and so enabling them to have a real living relationship with the holy God. This legalistic thinking can establish a false peace in the heart, and so make their sickness irremediable by persuading them that all is well.

Salvation is not only connected with the stopping of evil but also to a life of willing obedience to God, a life that is holy and pure in his sight. The kingdom of heaven is too great a prize to be given to a slavish fear, which only abstains from evil because it does not dare to commit it. God wants children who love his kindness, and not slaves who only serve him for fear of his power. So we must love him, and, consequently, do what true love inspires. Can we love God in good faith, and yet passionately love his enemy the world too, to which in the Gospel he has given so harsh a curse? Can we love God, and be content not troubling ourselves to please him, should we not glorify him, and bravely bear witness of our love for Him through our obedience? The tree which does not bear any fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire as if it were dead, according to Jesus Christ in the Gospel. Indeed, whoever does not bear the fruits of divine love is dead right down to the roots!

Is there a creature on earth so vile that they would be content to be so mocked with such a display of pseudo-love? Imagine that you are a person of great wealth, and someone professed to love you and desire to marry you but didn’t care about you enough to even want to socialize with you and instead continues to do things that make you cringe and constantly hang out with people that do likewise. Would you believe such a profession of love? Would not the person that truly loved God be mortified unto death to treat God in such a way? These lovers of the world wish that their claim of love for God should be enough to please God. Do you imagine that such a claim of love not supported by any desire for intimate closeness will fool God? Do you think God is satisfied with a profession of love that makes no effort to please him? For us to love God on the condition that we only give him words and ceremonies of which we are soon tired and bored is ridiculous. Open your heart and consider what I am saying here; that just the claim of love would fool the holy and pure God. These pseudo-Christians want very much to be accepted by God just as they are because they do not hate the sin that is within them. They love themselves more than they love God. They love their worldly life and hate the idea of holy and pure devotion to the awesome God. These people see themselves as God’s equal. They see themselves as being worthy of God, just as they are, just as the would-be suitor who proposed to you because of your wealth thinks that you would be lucky to have one such as they; it is an abomination.

Imagine expecting God to meet with you at your level as opposed to you meeting him at his. Are such people deluded or what? And, if these people do seek God, they seek only his help because the enemy is bashing down the gate, and they are now terrified for themselves. These people want very much to love him not as he is, but rather as they are, and they don’t want to change a thing about themselves to please him because they see no real need to do so.

When we compare ourselves with ourselves instead of with God, we only deceive ourselves concerning our spiritual maturity. The only way to spiritual maturity is for you to walk with God, and obey him in every little thing. It is his job to teach you, as it were, and it is your job to accept instruction. If you are unwilling to accept God on his conditions, do you think that he will accept you? Do you think that such reluctance on your part is an indication of the deep relationship you have with him, would it not rather serve only to irritate God?

I see more. I see people who claim to love God but are ashamed of his love, so much so that they hide it like a weakness, they blush for him as for a friend unworthy of being loved, and only give him a few semblances of religion, to avoid scandal and impiety, and that they live at the mercy of the world, not daring to give God anything except with the world’s permission. And with this sort of love, they pretend to deserve eternal rewards with God.

The Semi-Converted: I have made my confession to the priest, and have been very exact in my confession of the sins of my past life. I read the Bible some. I attend Mass modestly, and I pray to God sincerely enough. I avoid the great sins. I do not feel sufficiently touched to leave the world and to have no more dealings with it. Religion is pretty severe if it refuses such honest natures. All these refinements of devotion go too far and are more apt to discourage a person than to make him love the good.
The well-intentioned worldly churchgoers express their thinking with just this sort of testimony, but if they were to desire to enter into a living relationship with God, they need only examine the Scriptures in good faith. Their mistake comes from their not knowing either God or themselves. They are jealous of their liberty and fear of losing it by giving themselves up too much to devotion. But such people ought to consider that they do not belong to themselves. They belong to God. They are God’s, who has made them for himself alone, and not for themselves, and God leads them as he pleases, with absolute authority. They are wholly obligated to him unconditionally and unreservedly. The truth of the situation is that people do not even have the right to give themselves to God because they already belong to him. Technically it is a sacrilegious theft to give to God what is God’s already. You do, however, have something to give to God, which he wants, and that is your will. You have free will and can freely will yourself to love God.
All this might seem to you to be a bit unreasonable, but our reasoning does not change what God imposes on us. It is for us to believe it, adore it, and follow it blindly, whether we understand it fully or not. God knows better than we do what is right for us. If we had designed the Gospel, then perhaps we would have been tempted to soften it a bit to adapt it to our weaknesses, but God did not consult us in the making of it. He gave it to us fully finished and has not left us any hope of salvation except by accepting that which he brought about by his authority. Heaven and earth shall pass, but the word of life shall never pass. We cannot cut off a single word, nor the least letter. Woe to the minister who would dare to diminish its force, to soften it for us! It is not they who have made the Gospel. They are only simple servants who carry the results of the Gospel within them. So, we must not blame the ministers of the Gospel if we think that the Gospel is too severe a requirement.

The unchanging nature of God is as formidable for ministers of the Gospel as it is for you and the rest of humanity, and even more so for them, since they have accepted the responsibility to watch not only over themselves but also the flock and to shepherd them along the path that God has ordained that we should all follow. The Scriptures warn “Woe to the blind person who leads another blind person. They will both fall,” says the Son of God, “into the abyss.” Woe to the ignorant priest, either cowardly or a flatterer, who tries to widen the narrow way! The wide path is the path that leads to death. So then, let the pride of man be hushed! The proud man thinks that he is free, yet he is not, for in his pride he must always carry the yoke of the law, and to hope that God will give him strength in proportion to the weight of this yoke.
God has supreme power over every aspect of the creation, and it is he that gives by his grace to his children a spirit that loves and comforts, and they respond with a desire to love and please him in return. He gives his children a yoke of love that they bear with delight.

He softens his requirements through the interior charms of justice and truth, and he expresses his pure delight upon whatever is virtuous and his displeasure with false pleasures. He sustains a man against himself, snatches him away from corruption, and makes him strong despite his weakness. O man of little faith! What is it about God that makes you afraid? Let God act. Abandon yourself to him. You will suffer, but you will suffer with the love of God and a heart of peace as a consolation. You will fight, but you can carry off the victory, because God himself will be at your side, helping you to fight, and at your victory, he will crown you with his own hand. You will weep, but your tears will be sweet, and God himself will come with satisfaction to dry them. You will not be free any longer to give yourself up to your tyrannic passions, but you will sacrifice your liberty freely, and you will enter into a new liberty unknown to the world, in which you will do nothing except by way of love.

You should also consider what your bondage to the world use to costs you. That you no longer have work so hard in maintaining the esteem of worldly men. And what trouble it was to repress your true feelings so that your worldly associates would not judge you when they witnessed them. And the efforts you made to maintain good manners when placed into social situations that you did not approve of, all so that you could fit in with those around you. So then, are all these burdens of social acceptance the liberty of which you make so much, and which are so hard for you to sacrifice to God? Where is this liberty? Where is it? Show it to me. I see everywhere only anxiousness and concern, only base and unworthy servitude to ignoble things and people, only deplorable necessity disguising itself from morning till evening.

We resist the giving of ourselves to God, who only wants to save us. Having been deceived by this promise of liberty, we give ourselves up to the world, which doesn’t even profess to love us, and instead enslaves us to our animal passions. We imagine that we only do as we please in the world because we feel a certain rush of pleasure unleashing our animal passions, passions that hate every holy and pure thing, passions that drive us to do the very evil that we claim to hate, passions that are self-seeking even at the expense of those we claim to love. All I see of this “liberty” is frightful disgusts, deadly boredom, disillusions that are inseparable from the pleasures, and the humiliations that we have to endure in the highest places. Outwardly all are smiling; inwardly, all are full of chagrin and anxiety. The idea that we are free when we only depend on our animal pleasures is an insane error! When we live by our animal passions, we are completely dependent upon the whims of others, much more so than on our own desires. All the business of life, it seems to me, is fretted by conventionalities, and by the needs of pleasing others.

All I see in this so-called liberty is that our emotions are the rudest of all tyrants. If we only half-follow them, we must at all times struggle against them, and in this state, we are never totally relaxed or at peace. Our emotions betray us as they stomp on our hearts without mercy, and trample reason and honor beneath their feet. They never say, “It is enough.” Our passions are such ever-demanding forces that even if we could be sure always to keep them in check, what exhausting battles we would have, with no end in sight! And if on the contrary, you yield to the current driven by your passions, where do you imagine they will take you? I shudder at the thought of unrestrained passions, and you too should fear such a slippery slope to insanity.

O my God preserve me from this tragic state of bondage that human impudence is not ashamed to call liberty. It is in you that we are free. It is your truth that will deliver us. To serve you is to reign.
But what blindness it is to fear to advance too far into the love of God! Let us open our eyes and plunge headlong into his love. The more we love him, the more we love to do his will. It is always a great pleasure to please the one you truly love. It is this love which consoles us in our losses, which softens our crosses for us, which detaches us from all which is dangerous for us to love, which preserves us from a thousand poisons, which shows us benevolent compassion through all the ills which we suffer, even in death this love opens for us an eternal glory and happiness. It is this love which changes all our evils to good. How is it possible that we fear to fill ourselves too full of it? Are we afraid of being too happy, too freed from ourselves, freed from the whims of our pride, of being freed from the violence of our passions, or the tyranny of a deceitful world? Why do we delay in throwing ourselves headlong into the arms of the Father of Mercies and the God of all consolation? We can be sure that he will love us, and that our love for him will grow larger and deeper unto all eternity. God’s love promises for those that love him a state of peaceful, joyous rest. God alone will fill our hearts, which the world has intoxicated, agitated, distressed, all without being ever being able to fill. His love will make us only feel contempt for the world of empty promises. He will take away everything from us, which makes us unhappy. He will enable us to do the very thing we have been trying to do on our own, and that is to build a society of love and peace in which to live. Our attempts have been unproductive because they were selfishly motivated, but the selfless God will change our hearts so that we can accomplish his will as an act of love. He will guide us to do his will through his great love for us, which will induce us to love and obey him in return. All of our activities, even the least activities of a simple and ordinary life, will be turned into satisfaction as a benefit because we trust him. We shall watch in peace the approach of death, and what we use to fear will be changed into anticipation. Through our willingness to empty ourselves and be filled with God’s love, we will find that we are not made less, but on the contrary, enlarged with the fullness of God. St. Paul said. O, how amiable is religion!

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This article was a letter originally written by Francois Fenelon some 300 years ago as part of his collection of letters later published under the name of Christian Perfection and was edited by Mark Heaney. A copy of Christian Perfection that was translated from the French by Mildred Whitney Stillman can be read here and was the translation that I worked from. Christian Perfection was, to me, one of the most practical Christian writings I have ever read, and so I thought that I might edit the phrasing to make it easier for people to understand.

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